On the eve of the Iowa Straw Poll of Republican presidential aspirants, non-candidate Sarah Palin was mobbed as she slowly worked her way through the Iowa State Fair after arriving in Des Moines as part of her periodic “One Nation” bus tour.
The former Alaska governor was noncommittal about whether she intends to join the presidential race, saying she intends to make a decision by the early fall. “I think the more the merrier, the more the better in these debates and out there in the arena,” Palin said. “It’s better for voters to have more choices.”
Asked if she would visit the straw poll venue at Iowa State University in Ames tomorrow, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee said: “No, I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, so we won’t be in the state tomorrow.”
The star treatment given Palin, who was trailed by the news media and supporters, offered a reminder of the unsettled nature of the Republican primary. While some contenders have been campaigning for months, Texas Governor Rick Perry is scheduled to announce his candidacy tomorrow in South Carolina.
Palin, who previously this year took her bus tour to several northeastern states, announced her Iowa stop on Aug. 12 as political activity was intensifying in advance of the straw poll.
Importance of Speeches
In the past, many Iowa voters didn’t actually listen to speeches by presidential candidates inside Iowa State University’s basketball arena, the straw poll venue.
This year, with a wide-open Republican field vying to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012, there is a sense that the undecided may base their votes on something other than just who offers the best food or musical act at the gathering.
“There are a number of Iowa Republicans I’ve talked to at events that say they’re actually going to listen to the speeches before they decide,” said Matt Strawn, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.
“It’s pretty volatile,” said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa who so far is neutral in the presidential race. “I’ve never seen it this unsettled -- ever.”
Bob Haus, a Republican strategist in Iowa and a straw poll organizer, also predicted a high number of undecided voters. He pointed to the importance of a well-received speech in 2007 by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who came from relative obscurity to finish second in the straw poll.
“He converted a fair chunk of people with his speech that day,” Haus said.
Back in Iowa
Huckabee, now a Fox News commentator, will be part of the spectacle again this year, playing his bass guitar at the straw poll tents of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Godfather’s Pizza Inc. executive Herman Cain.
After finishing behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the 2007 straw poll, Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in January 2008 and remains popular in the state.
Michele Bachmann, a House member from Minnesota seeking the Republican presidential nomination, plans some musical competition at her tent -- country singer Randy Travis -- as well as “a petting zoo for the kids.”
Straw Poll Stakes
Bachmann and Pawlenty have much to gain, or lose, in the straw poll. The intensity of the contest between the two was on display at Iowa State last night at a Fox News-sponsored debate of the candidates, where Pawlenty said Bachmann has “a record of misstating and making false statements.”
“She said she’s got a titanium spine,” he said. “It’s not her spine we’re worried about; it’s her record of results.”
Bachmann, an Iowa native who has drawn enthusiastic audiences in her campaign there, framed her attack by likening some of Pawlenty’s positions to Obama’s. Charging that Pawlenty has supported an individual mandate requiring insurance coverage -- a main element of the health-care measure the president got passed last year over Republican opposition, Bachmann said “that sounds a lot more like Barack Obama, if you ask me.”
The debate marked the start of a more aggressive phase of the campaign, as candidates sought to draw distinctions among themselves and other contenders and make their case for beating Obama amid a struggling U.S. economy and gyrating financial markets.
Adding to the uncertainty is the pending entry into the race by Perry, 61, who will make his first Iowa appearance roughly 24 hours after the straw poll results are announced. A nationwide USA Today/Gallup poll published this week showed Perry in second place, behind Romney, among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
Perry’s name won’t be on the straw poll ballot, although supporters have been encouraging people to write it in, an option available for the first time this year.
Once he gets to Iowa, Perry may have some apologizing to do. Some activists are upset that he skipped the straw poll and decided to make clear his presidential ambition in a spotlight- stealing South Carolina speech scheduled for the same day.
Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican website and a former state party political director, called Perry’s decision a “slap in the face to Republican voters in Iowa,” as well as to the other candidates seeking the nomination.
“The move makes it obvious that Governor Perry either doesn’t understand the Iowa caucuses or doesn’t respect the role that Iowa plays in the nominating process,” Robinson wrote.
Not a Predictor
While the straw poll is designed to gauge the early popularity of Republican presidential hopefuls, it isn’t necessarily an indicator of who will win the party’s caucuses in Iowa next year, much less the nomination.
Romney’s 2007 straw poll win is the most recent example. After spending roughly $2 million on his straw poll campaign, he finished second in the state’s caucuses and lost the 2008 nomination to Senator John McCain of Arizona. Romney, 64, decided against actively competing in the straw poll this year.
Besides Romney, Pawlenty, Bachmann, Santorum and Cain, the other candidates on tomorrow’s ballot are Representative Ron Paul of Texas, Representative Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr.
A ballot spot was guaranteed by renting space at the straw poll or by placement there by the state party. The event doubles as a fund-raiser for the state Republican Party.
Attendance requires a $30 admission ticket, so better- financed candidates often pick up that cost and provide bus rides to the venue, along with food and entertainment. Some campaigns quietly complain about the expense.
“It is just one series of transfer payments from the candidates to the Republican Party of Iowa,” said David Yepsen, a former political writer at the Des Moines Register who is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “It starts to smack of shaking down of candidates.”
Chronicling the activity will be roughly 700 journalists from around the globe who have signed up for credentials. The voting tomorrow begins at 10 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. local time.
In 2007, about 14,300 ballots were cast, and Romney won with just 4,516 votes.
Even though the straw poll represents only a fraction of Iowa Republicans, party leaders defend the event, saying it tests the organizational ability of the campaigns before the caucuses.
Counting On Supporters
“Most of these campaigns would love to know in August, if somebody is committed to driving to Ames or to get on a bus, that’s somebody you know you can count on on a cold February night,” Strawn said. “From a campaign perspective, I think it’s incredibly important.”
The stakes in the straw poll may be highest for Pawlenty, 50. He has placed his greatest emphasis on Iowa since he began pursuing the presidency. A poor straw poll showing would fuel the view that he has failed to gain traction in the state.
“It’s an important event, but it’s not the ultimate event,” Pawlenty told reporters Aug. 8. “There’s a lot of uniqueness to the straw poll that gives some advantage to candidates like Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann. But within that, we’re going to do well.”
Pawlenty said his fundraising wouldn’t be hurt by a third- place finish.
“It depends who the other two spots are,” he said. “If somebody came in first who the country didn’t view as a credible candidate, that’s less of a hurdle to going forward for fundraising and political support.”
Asked if he was referring to Bachmann, 55, and Paul, 75, Pawlenty said he didn’t intend to.
As for Palin’s visit, Pawlenty said, “I think the fairgrounds are big enough for everyone.”
In 2007, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson dropped out of the presidential race shortly after finishing sixth in the straw poll.
“I knew I was dead,” he told the Des Moines Register in a recent interview. “It wiped me out and took all my money.”
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